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Texas and federal government clash over how to deter illegal border crossings

Barricades and battles on the Texas border
With barricades, soldiers and new laws, Texas tries to deter illegal border crossings 13:25

This past week both President Biden and former President Trump visited the southern border in Texas. There's no denying immigration has become one of the most important and contentious issues in the presidential campaign. And there's no better example of that than the high stakes fight between the state of Texas and the federal government. Three years ago, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott launched "Operation Lone Star," deploying thousands of police and soldiers and miles of barriers to deter record numbers of illegal crossings. The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that immigration is the job of the federal government. But rarely has a state so aggressively challenged that authority. In January, Gov. Abbott ordered his state National Guard to block the federal government's Border Patrol from Shelby Park, a dusty stretch of border along the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass, Texas. To understand why, you need to see what happened there in December.

We were on the banks of the river before dawn with soldiers from the Texas National Guard… we heard the cries of people before we could see their faces. It wasn't until we moved closer that we realized how many people had just crossed from Mexico

The soldiers told them it was dangerous to cross here.

"Help us," they begged. Some of the women cried -- "we have children."

Border wire
Migrants at the border are confronted by wire. 60 Minutes

We heard groans... and found this young man twisting in the wire…. he kept going….

"Stay calm," they told each other, as families pushed their children through.

Nearly everyone we saw made it across …and into the United States. 

Thousands of people a day crossed here in late December -- a record for this section of the Texas border. There were so many people… the U.S. Border Patrol had to transform Shelby Park into an open air holding center…

Weeks later once the surge died down, Gov. Abbott ordered his Texas National Guard to block the federal government's Border Patrol from entering the park without permission. Gov. Abbott argued the federal government had failed to fulfill its obligation to the states -- and in that some heard echoes of Texas' history of rebellion and threats of secession.

Cecilia Vega: I can't believe, Governor, I'm gonna ask you this question, but I'm-- I'm gonna ask you: Do you believe that Texas has the right to secede? Is that what we're talkin' about here?

Gov. Greg Abbott: Those are false narratives. What Texas and the United States have the right to do-- and that's to enforce the law.

Cecilia Vega: You heard the argument against what you're doing out here. Each state can't control its own border policy. You're looking at a completely chaotic system. That's the job of the federal government--

Gov. Greg Abbott: We are not imposing a Texas border policy. Texas, very simply, is enforcing the laws-- that-- are the policy of the United States Congress.

Cecilia Vega: What gives you the authority to tell the U.S. Border Patrol what to do?

Gov. Greg Abbott: For one, as governor of the state of Texas, I have-- the authority to control ingress and egress-- to any land in the state of Texas. For another, this land we're on right now was used by the federal government to further illegal activity, and I wanted to put a stop to it.

Gov. Abbott
Gov. Abbott 60 Minutes

We went behind the guarded gates of Shelby Park in January -- shortly after Gov. Abbott had taken control. 

Texas Department of Public Safety Lt. Christopher Olivarez showed us where state national guardsmen were installing fresh razor wire barriers along the river. 

Cecilia Vega: Help me understand at the heart of this, why Texas has a problem with the Border Patrol coming into process migrants in this park.

Lt. Christopher Olivarez: The issue is trying to prevent another influx, because when Border Patrol is here setting up a processing center, it's gonna attract, it's gonna encourage more migrants to cross the river because they know where to go.

It's one of many spots along the Texas border where coils of sharp wire have been going up ever since Gov. Abbott launched Operation Lone Star in 2021. Since then, thousands of migrants have been arrested and detained on trespassing charges.

State troopers have cracked down on human smuggling rings.

And the state has spent more than $150 million sending migrants on buses to cities like New York and Chicago, turning the trouble at the border into a political and financial headache for Democratic mayors.

Once the site of ballgames and flea markets, Shelby Park is now Gov. Abbott's model of what the Texas border can be…

Gov. Greg Abbott: Where we are right now, there used to be 3,000 or 4,000 people crossing illegally a day. For the past three days, there's an average of just three people crossing the border illegally. 

Raul Ortiz: You don't just plant a flag just to plant a flag. It's gotta be strategic and it's gotta make sense. 

Raul Ortiz served as chief of the U.S. Border Patrol under President Biden and deputy chief under President Trump. He retired last year.

Raul Ortiz: When agencies are making a decision based upon politics or whether they're gonna get media coverage, hey, we're gonna put all our personnel in this two-mile stretch. What about the other 200 miles?

Raul Ortiz
Raul Ortiz served as chief of the U.S. Border Patrol under President Biden and deputy chief under President Trump. He retired last year. 60 Minutes

In our interview, Ortiz criticized Gov. Abbott for not cooperating with the Border Patrol and playing politics with immigration. But he also expressed frustration with President Biden. 

Raul Ortiz: I've never had one conversation with the president. Or the vice president, for that matter. And so I was the chief of the border patrol. I commanded 21,000 people. That's a problem.

Cecilia Vega: I just saw 50 people today who had just crossed the border illegally. So something's not working.

Raul Ortiz: We need to make sure that Central America, South America, Mexico, that those regions understand that if you pay a smuggler and you cross in between the ports of entry and you do not have a legitimate claim to some sort of asylum benefit, you're gonna be sent back.

Cecilia Vega: Do you believe that the White House has sent mixed messages to migrants? 

Raul Ortiz: Yeah, most definitely. 

We spoke with Ortiz in an area just four miles south of Shelby Park. The ground was littered with wet clothes that migrants had changed out of and left behind after crossing the river.

Cecilia Vega: Does all of this tell you that people are still crossing this river right here?

Raul Ortiz: Oh, yeah, the guides or the smugglers will bring the migrants over. This all very calculated by the cartels that control these areas on the Mexican side.

Clothing left behind by migrants
Clothing is left behind by migrants. 60 Minutes

About seven miles north of Shelby Park… we came upon this group of migrants who had just crossed the Rio Grande -- and were being picked up by the Border Patrol.

This mother and her two sons took buses from El Salvador. She told us the soldiers on the U.S. side of the border weren't much of a deterrent-- she feared the cartels in Mexico more…..

"Sometimes they kidnap you and expect payment," she said.

Cecilia Vega: The reality is people are still gonna find a way to get in no matter how much manpower you have out here, no much-- how much wire you put up—

Gov. Greg Abbott: Disagree completely, because

Cecilia Vega: You do?

Gov. Greg Abbott: Yeah, 'cause-- in Texas, anyway-- we're gonna be barricading every area where people are crossing-- until we get every area to have like this area is right now.

Cecilia Vega: Texas is going to barricade every area? What do you mean? 

Gov. Greg Abbott: Every area where the cartels use as a crossing we intend to be barricading.

Cecilia Vega: Border's gonna look like a war zone.

Gov. Greg Abbott: It is a war zone.

Over the past three years, the Biden administration has carried out 4 million expulsions and deportations – more than the Trump administration. But it has also allowed a record 3 million people to remain in the country for years while their immigration cases are heard. And the Border Patrol estimates another 1.6 million people have entered the country illegally without getting caught.

This past week, former President Trump visited Shelby Park with Gov. Abbott…

On the same day, President Biden was also at the Texas border in Brownsville.

President Biden says that if Republicans were serious about securing the border they would not have rejected a bipartisan immigration deal in the senate last month after former President Trump opposed it. That deal would have increased funding for the Border Patrol and required the president to expel all migrants crossing illegally during surges like the one at Shelby Park in December. 

The latest battle between Texas and Washington concerns a new law Gov. Abbott signed authorizing Texas' more than 2,700 law enforcement agencies to arrest migrants for illegally crossing the border. Texas judges could then order migrants to return to Mexico or serve time-- bypassing the federal immigration system entirely. 

Critics of the law say it is so broadly written it fails to define when authorities can stop someone. 

We asked Lt. Olivarez of the Texas Department of Public Safety, or "DPS," about the concern that immigrants and people of color could be subjected to racial profiling.

Lt. Olivarez
Texas Department of Public Safety Lt. Olivarez 60 Minutes

Lt. Christopher Olivarez: I can tell you that our troopers are not gonna be stopping cars and checking for immigration status. They're not. 

Cecilia Vega: But this law is not just written for DPS.

Lt. Christopher Olivarez: Right. It's a Texas law. 

Cecilia Vega: The reality is, this is going to be carried out far from the border.

Lt. Christopher Olivarez: Absolutely.

Cecilia Vega: So couldn't you get caught up in it? You're Latino. Couldn't I get caught up in it?

Lt. Christopher Olivarez: That's not the case. They have to develop probable cause in order to stop a car. You can't just go interview every single person in that car, ask 'em for immigration status. But of course, yeah, there could be some issues where maybe some other agency outside of a border area-- could take that into account.

Cecilia Vega: Does that make you nervous?

Lt. Christopher Olivarez: It's probable-- it's probable, it's probable because there's a lot of agencies here in Texas that operate, right? But I would think that every chief at a police agency would have to implement some type of policy and procedure to actually enforce this new law.

This past week, a federal judge temporarily stopped the new law from taking effect while it's being challenged in court. The Department of Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union are suing Texas, arguing the law interferes with the federal government's authority over immigration. But Gov. Abbott argues Texas is being invaded and has the right to defend itself. That idea has resonated with militias and groups opposed to illegal immigration… some joined a convoy last month and descended on the Eagle Pass area. 

Cecilia Vega: Everyone, I think, agrees that the immigration system right now is completely broken and there's a lot of blame to go around. But do you really, truly believe that "invasion" is the right word to be using here?

Gov. Greg Abbott: Invasion is the word that's used in the United States Constitution, "invasion" or "imminent danger." I use 'em both. And we are in imminent danger because of what the drug cartels do every single day, because of the known and unknown terrorists who cross every single day.

Cecilia Vega: So, the convoys and militia have heard the language, and they've started to come to the point that migrants have had to be relocated from some locations for their own safety. Are you not concerned about violence happening because of language like the word invasion?

Gov. Greg Abbott: There's no language that would spur violence, but I'll be clear about this: We don't want violence of any type.

Cecilia Vega: How does this end? 

Gov. Greg Abbott: Oh, it ends very simply, and that's with a president of the United States who will actually fulfill his oath of office and enforce the laws of the United States of America. And that means denying illegal entry into our country.

Cecilia Vega: Do you want to be Trump's running mate?

Gov. Greg Abbott: No.

Cecilia Vega: What if he asks you?

Gov. Greg Abbott: Listen, I love being governor of Texas. I can best aid him in my role by being a great governor of Texas.

So far, the governor has committed more than $11 billion to Operation Lone Star. Over the last three years, the percentage of people entering Texas illegally has dropped, while rising in other border states. Abbott's critics say that has more to do with other factors like crack-downs on migration in parts of Mexico.

There are still more than a million illegal border crossings in Texas every year.

There are also at least a dozen lawsuits being fought between Texas and the federal government over immigration issues. All that infighting worries former Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz….

Raul Ortiz: The National Guardsmen-- even, to some degree, the border patrol agents have become pawns in this political game between the two sides.

Cecilia Vega: Who's winning? 

Raul Ortiz: The cartels, the criminal organizations, that's who's winnin' in all of this. They're sittin' back reapin' all the benefits while they watch the state of Texas and Washington D.C. go at it.

Produced by Andy Court. Associate producer, Annabelle Hanflig and Camilo Montoya-Galvez. Broadcast associate, Katie Jahns. Edited by Robert Zimet.

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